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Iran: Moderates Lead In Local Elections

Prague, 2 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Preliminary results from Iran's local elections show moderates headed for a victory but a dispute is growing over whether conservatives will accept the results.

The full tally from Friday's nationwide elections for municipal council seats is not expected to be available for several days. But with more than half the votes now reported counted in Tehran and some 75 percent in the provinces, reformers appear to have beaten their rivals from the clerical establishment in Tehran and are running well in many other areas.

The picture of which candidates are ahead and in which races is clouded by the fact that the vote counting has been slow and two rival bodies which claim to supervise the polling are not providing clear tallies as the counting progresses. That has left Iranian media -- itself divided between the conservative and reformist camps -- to speculate broadly about the results of the races, usually quoting unnamed officials.

But press reports say that the counting to date shows supporters of moderate President Mohammad Khatami appear to have won 13 of the 15 seats in Tehran, where the races have focused directly on the competition between the two camps.

The press reports also indicate that the majority of reformist candidates will win in Isfahan, a Khatami stronghold, and in the northern provincial capitals of Sari and Ardebil. In the southern city of Shiraz, reformers are reported set to win the top two slots but conservatives also look sure to be elected. In Urumiyeh, capital of the province of West Azerbaijan, a woman reformer is leading the poll while moderates and conservatives are running neck-and-neck for other positions.

Many of the races in smaller towns have not directly pitted reformists against conservatives as they feature local personalities who have campaigned on purely local issues.

Analysts say that both reformists and conservatives are looking to those races where they are directly competing against one another as a measure of their relative political strength. The reformists hope to use their victories in the election to build their chances to win parliamentary elections next year. The conservatives are seeking to hold onto as much of their authority as possible. Until now, city and town officials have been appointed by the country's ruling clerical establishment.

Edmund Herzig, an expert on Iranian politics at Manchester University in England, says that the final vote count in key races, such as those in Tehran, will likely be followed by conservatives' disputing the results. But he says that the conservatives will face a difficult challenge in doing so without appearing to want to overturn the will of the electorate. Edmund Herzig says:

"There is likely to be some argument about the results and already that is starting ... but ... it is going to make [the conservatives] look as if they are trying to annul the will of the people. So if [the conservatives] come out and say these people may be the candidates you want but we disqualified them so they should not be allowed to stand, that then makes them look very anti-democratic."

Disputes over how to conduct the elections dominated the run-up to the voting last week as hardliners and reformists disputed which agency has authority to supervise the races and who was qualified to stand as candidates.

The disputes reached a head during the last days of campaigning as a supervision board appointed by the conservative-dominated parliament ruled that 50 mostly moderate candidates were disqualified from races nationwide. Most significantly for the reformists, the board refused to allow key Khatami ally Abdollah Nouri from running in Tehran. Nouri was stripped of his post as interior minister in a major power struggle between the two camps last year.

His exclusion from the elections was later rejected by arbiters, but the supervision board has refused to change its ruling. The head of the hardline Tehran Supervision Board, Mohsen Yahyavi, repeated yesterday that conservatives will definitely nullify the votes for those candidates whom the board disqualified. Immediately after the voting, an important hardline faction, the Society for Combatant Clergy, questioned the credibility of vote counting in Tehran in a foretaste of the conservative charges that could follow reformist victories.

Whether conservatives can nullify voting results remains to be seen. Even as the parliamentary-appointed Supervision Board has claimed authority to oversee the elections, so has Iran's interior ministry, which is led by Khatami supporters. Both sides have claimed authority under the Islamic Republic's constitution, which allows local elections but is vague on how they should be conducted.

While the reformists and conservatives square-off over the election results, the most important aspect of the local elections may simply be the fact that they were held. The local voting is the first in the 20-year history of the Islamic Republic and is seen by many analysts as an important step toward strengthening popular participation in decision-making -- a key reformist goal. Edmund Herzig says:

"People have had a choice. It is clear that the voters have been able to feel that they are choosing between candidates representing particular wings of the regime ... and at a local level, as well, even if outside the cities candidates may not always present themselves in terms of belonging to one or the other of the political factions, still, there has been a choice of candidates in most constituencies."

Turnout for the election is reported to have been higher than expected, with Iran state radio reporting that some 25 million Iranians cast their ballots. That figure would be just short of the record 29 million Iranians who turned out for Iran's presidential vote in May 1997 to elect Khatami by a landslide on his promise to build a more democratic version of the Islamic Republic.

Herzig says the reported high turnout and apparent widespread wins by moderates in the local elections may signal that reformists now have gained the initiative in mobilizing grassroots' support for their vision of a more open society.

"It is looking more and more clear that the conservatives and the old-style revolutionary ideals and ... rhetoric and visions that they have of the Islamic Republic is losing its appeal to very large sections of the population, particularly the young and to women."

News reports say that young people and women turned out in high numbers for the polls and between them represent a enormous section of the voting public. The Islamic Republic allows all citizens over the age of 15 to vote and around 60 percent of Iranians are under 25.